Monday, July 25, 2011

Joplin tornado: Two days in Joplin, and the inspirational work being done there

 One day two weeks ago, I took the exit ramp off I-44 and headed into Joplin, Mo., wondering when I'd see tornado damage on my way to the Joplin Globe's newsroom.

 A couple of minutes later, I was in it. For block after block after block.

 An EF5 tornado churned through the city May 22. It was three-quarters of a mile wide -- wide enough to have an eye, the Globe reported. It gouged a path several miles long. It destroyed one-third of the city, the paper said. It killed more than 150 people.

 It also made that city's newspaper indispensable. Joplin residents are looking to their newspaper/website to tell them more about what happened and how, to read about what's happening next, and to connect them with volunteers and donations that are pouring in to the city. The Globe is covering all of that and more. Metro editor Andy Ostmeyer told me that circulation (normally about 30,500) has gone up by several thousand since the tornado.

  I thought about how hard those journalists would be working now -- a small staff with the added stress, of course, that some lost their homes or cars in the tornado. A former newsroom staffer died. I had read that journalists from around the country had sent care boxes or other signs of support to the staff, and that a few had volunteered to help in the newsroom.

 In early June, I e-mailed editor Carol Stark and told her that my family and I would be visiting relatives in Verona, Mo., about an hour from Joplin, and if she thought I could be of use, I could put in a couple of shifts doing whatever she needed, if just to show support. I told her I felt connected in two ways: our newsroom had worked through stressful times, too (though nothing like what happened there in May); and my wife's family had lived in Pierce City, Mo. when a tornado destroyed pretty much the whole tiny town in 2003.

 She graciously welcomed me two weeks ago Tuesday and introduced me to Andy, who introduced me to Emily Younker, a young reporter who was working on a story about how 16 people in a skilled nursing home died, and whether anything could have been done to prevent it. Here is a mind-boggling before/after picture of the nursing home and the church and school across the street. (I took several photos there; see below.)

Emily, who had interviews set up with people who had been in the home and with other key sources, needed someone to call industry experts/other experts to get their take. She also had several PDFs' worth of state nursing home inspection reports that she hadn't had time to mine for anything that could be related to the building, staff training, emergency planning and so on.

 So that's what I did (along with offering a few editing thoughts at the back end). She took a lot of info and distilled it into a fine story.

 In my two days in the newsroom, I was struck by the vibe. As an outsider, I couldn't have guessed what they'd just been through and are still going through. That's what I love about committed journalists: They understand what their community needs, and they simply put their heads down and do their jobs.

 I heard Emily patiently working to get sourcing, as well as giving a veteran editor his assignments. I heard Andy making calls to help push the reporting. I heard reporter Josh Letner interviewing for a fascinating story about a homeless camp that sprung up after the tornado. At lunch I met Wally Kennedy, introduced by Andy as someone who's done pretty much everything at the paper, and learned how he's diving into tornado history in the region.

 I heard and saw a newsroom at work at a most critical time. What a privilege to be part of it for just a little while.

                                          Scrap metal seekers are out.
                                          St. Mary's Church.
                                      View looking west from the hill leading to St. Mary's.
                                          Lampost in front of St. Mary's Parish Center.
            The empty, cleaned-up lot is where Greenbriar nursing home used to be.
                           Books and part of a classroom from St. Mary's Elementary.
Looking northeast from W. 25th St., in front of St. Mary's Church.